I guess it was beginner’s luck when, circa 1984, I submitted my first fall fair entry: a still life of an orange in the kids’ photo category. It won first place.

So maybe I was a little brazen, a tad overconfident, when three decades later I attempted to repeat my initial victory, this time as a newbie jam maker. After charging through the gates on the fair’s opening evening ready to claim my glory, I found my raspberry jam — displaying a red ribbon and standing strangely, shamefully alone.

I’d placed second in a category of one.

That was when I learned that the fall fair can be anything but.

Fall fairs are the beating heart of a rural community. They form an annual social hub, a meeting place, a reason for celebration and, for better or worse, an opportunity for a little neighborly competition. Between the midway, the livestock, the rodeo and a little live music, they’re also a highlight for children. But the excitement of entering fall fair exhibits can stand in stark contrast to the reality of getting thumped by the competition (or, as in my experience, a lack thereof).

As a friend and seasoned fall-fair judge recently put it, “The wins are easy — the important life lessons are in the defeats.” So, grow your biggest zucchini. Bake your best kale chips. Sculpt a Picasso-worthy vegetable face. Then put it out there. Give it your best shot. As much as they are full of persnickety rules, long-standing winners and high-falutin judges, fall fairs are also a gold mine for life lessons and character-building conversations.

Read the rules carefully

This is the first thing every fall fair judge will tell you. It’s heartbreaking to disqualify an entry, particularly one bearing the childish scrawl of a six-year-old, because there was one Smarties-studded cookie submitted instead of the required three, or the macaroni-adorned paper plate was the wrong dimensions. Read those instructions carefully. Then read them again. Fairs have strict guidelines and aren’t the place to begin a lesson in civil resistance.

Join the fun

If your kids are putting themselves out there, why not do the same? Maybe you have a hidden talent that begs revealing. If not, it’s never too late to try your hand at a little knitting, bread making or flower arranging. Fall fair categories can get weird (a little axe throwing, anyone?), so have fun with it. This is a great opportunity to lead by example.

It’s not about you

For me, one of the most exciting things about having a child was that I would have someone to help with — or, perhaps, to blame for — my holiday crafting. But DIY-crazed moms need to remember that your child might not be as enthusiastic as you are. Yet, anyway. And that’s OK. Accept that your child may rather hang out in the petting zoo and go easy on the pressure and expectations.

When it gets cutthroat

The truly cutthroat part of fall fair competitions happens — literally — in the livestock category. If, like me, you endured a suburban upbringing, it can be hard to rectify sweet Sally Ann, with her glowing smile and pigtails, standing next to a sign that reads, “Thanks, Sausage Factory, for buying my lamb.” I’ll leave those life lessons up to 4-H Clubs and experienced parents, but suffice is to stay that these kids grow up knowing their livestock aren’t pets. I understand that naming your sow something like Chris P. Bacon helps.

When it’s all over

So, the fair has ended. You’ve washed the cotton candy from your hair and dirt from under your fingernails. Perhaps you’ve landed some victories; maybe some crushing defeats. The bitter-sweetness still mingles like the taste of mini-donuts and bile-producing midway rides. Now is a great time to recap your weekend. Celebrate your wins. Have a heart-to-heart about the disappointments. Then, when the dust settles, begin planning for next year’s exhibition.

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Featured Photo Courtesy: Amanda Follett Hosgood